Giotto

Symbol of the profound reform of the Western figurative tradition, protagonist of the extraordinary period of articulation and innovation that characterised 14th-century Florentine painting, we also owe to Giotto the rise of the role of artists and their social recognition. In a fragmented and struggling Italy, Giotto was the first artist to have supra-regional relevance and influence, not only his time, but over the centuries to follow.

Origins, training and fame among contemporaries

Originally from Mugello, north of Florence, Giotto di Bondone was born around 1265. In Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Vasari (1511–1547) recounts that, at the age of ten, while grazing the sheep entrusted to him by his father, he spent his time drawing landscapes and animals in the earth and on stones. One day, Cimabue (c. 1240–1309) – one of the greatest Tuscan masters of the time – passed by along those paths. He was very impressed by the young man’s amazing ability to portray a sheep, with such naturalness and on a simple stone. Giotto was immediately invited to study at his workshop in Florence. Be it a legend or not, we can only be sure that Giotto soon surpassed his illustrious master in both style and fame.

His extraordinary painterly qualities, from his spatial experiments and study of perspective, to his truthfulness in portraying landscapes, atmospheric and architectural elements, as well as the gestures, faces and expressions of characters earned him major commissions, including the frescoes of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, countless commissions from royal courts, such as that of the Angevins in Naples, as well as many Florentine commissions.

At 35 years of age his fame was such as to have been included in the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321): “In painting Cimabue thought he held | the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim — | the former only keeps a shadowed fame.” (Purgatory, XI, lines 91–96). But Dante is not the only one who remembers this: from the testament of Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) we know that Giotto painted an image of the Madonna for the poet from Arezzo, now unfortunately lost. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), on the other hand, in the Fifth Novella of the Sixth Day of his Decameron, praises the beauty of Giotto’s art ironically in contrast to his appearance: “Giotto, was endowed with so excellent an ingenuity that there is nothing created by Nature, the mother and generator of all things by means of the movements of the heavens, that he did not know how to paint with stylus or pen or brush in a manner so similar to that, that indeed it seemed to be just that, so much so that many times the sight of men was misled, believing that what was only painted was real. […] But although his art was very great, he was not himself in the most beautiful body and appearance […].”

Activity in Florence

There are major testimonies of Giotto’s multidisciplinary art in Florence. We still have pictorial examples today: the Painted Crucifix (1290–1295) in Santa Maria Novella, the series of frescoes in the Bardi Chapel (c. 1325), the Baroncelli Polyptych (c. 1328) both in Santa Croce and the beautiful Maestà di Ognissanti (c. 1305–1310) in the Uffizi. The painting is evidence of the definitive surpassing of Byzantine frontality, where space – no longer two-dimensional – is a physical space, articulated by the aedicule of the throne on which the imposing Virgin expresses extraordinary sacredness. Her features are natural, humanised, almost hinting at a smile that reveals her teeth. It is the first smile in the history of Italian art. The Child, sitting amiably on her knees, blesses the viewer with his right hand. The great attention to real datum can also be read in the faces of the angels and in the surprisingly verisimilar details of the gnarled wood of the throne or the marble of the floor, in the beauty of the Marian flowers offered to the Madonna.

Madonna col Bambino in trono, angeli e santi (Maestà di Ognissanti), 1305-1310 c
Virgin and Child enthroned, surrounded by angels and saints (Ognissanti Maestà), 1305-1310 c.

In the ancient Chapel of the Podestà in the Palazzo del Bargello, there are fragments of frescoes painted by Giotto between 1334 and 1337, the year of his death, and which only came to light in 1937. The chapel, which housed those condemned to death before execution, is frescoed with the Stories of Magdalene, the patron saint of sinners, and the Last Judgement. In addition to his genius, Giotto gives us the gift of the oldest portrait of Dante Alighieri, whose face is recognisable among the chosen ones in Paradise.

Giotto’s role as architect, on the other hand, is underestimated, probably because very few testimonies of this activity have reached us: from Vasari’s text, we know that in 1334 the Signoria of Florence entrusted Giotto with the task of supervising the Opera di Santa Reparata (the old cathedral) and all public works in the city; for this task he was paid one hundred gold florins a year.
The only surviving architecture is the majestic Bell Tower of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, with a square base of about 15 metres per side, standing almost 85 metres high. The artist directed the construction up to the first orders then, following his death, the structure was entrusted to his pupil Andrea Pisano (c. 1290–1348) and finally completed by Francesco Talenti (c. 1305–1369) in 1359. The exterior is clad in white, red and green marble with geometric and floral motifs, interspersed with niches inside which sculptures and reliefs illustrate the Christian Virtues, the Sacraments, the Liberal Arts, but also Biblical scenes such as the creation with Adam and Eve. The great Bell Tower can still be visited today, with a climb of 398 steps to reach the top.

Death and fame in posterity

His fame and influence on posterity is undoubtedly linked to the great pictorial innovations, plasticity, three-dimensionality of bodies and architecture, fluidity of movement and attention to detail, so truthful as to seem real; thrones, architectural structures, gilded embroidery, transparent veils and diadems set with stones are just a few examples of the completeness of his paintings.

Giotto died in 1337 at the age of about 70, in Florence, leaving a void behind him on the Florentine painting scene, filled only in the 15th century by the magnificent contributions of Masaccio (1401–1428).

Photo: Portrait of Giotto, 1500 to 1550, Florentine School, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Dove e quando

Mugello (Florence), 1265 – Florence, 1337

Arte

Painting, architecture

Museums

Galleria degli Uffizi

Purchase ticket

Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Purchase ticket

Related products

Related museums

Galleria degli Uffizi

From €15,00

La Galleria degli Uffizi, costruita tra il 1560 e il 1580 su progetto di Giorgio Vasari, è tra i musei più importanti al mondo per le sue straordinarie collezioni di sculture antiche e di pitture (dal Medioevo all’età moderna).


Average visit time:

2-3 hours

Museo Nazionale del Bargello

From €9,00

L’antico Palazzo del Podestà di Firenze ospita oggi il Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Dedicato principalmente alla scultura, fa parte dei “Musei del Bargello” insieme alle Cappelle Medicee, ad Orsanmichele, al Palazzo Davanzati e a Casa Martelli.


Average visit time:

1-2 hours

Galleria degli Uffizi

From €15,00

La Galleria degli Uffizi, costruita tra il 1560 e il 1580 su progetto di Giorgio Vasari, è tra i musei più importanti al mondo per le sue straordinarie collezioni di sculture antiche e di pitture (dal Medioevo all’età moderna).


Average visit time:

2-3 hours

Shopping Cart
bearound-logo